Skip to page content

Stephen Hartke is widely recognized as one of the leading composers of his generation, whose work has been hailed for both its singularity of voice and the inclusive breadth of its inspiration. Born in Orange, New Jersey, Hartke grew up in Manhattan where he began his musical career as a professional boy chorister, performing with such organizations as the New York Pro Musica, the New York Philharmonic, the American Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera. Following studies at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, interrupted by stints as advertising manager for several major music publishers, Hartke taught in Brazil as Fulbright Professor at the Universidade de São Paulo, before joining the University of Southern California faculty in 1987.

Hartke’s output is extremely varied, from the medieval-inspired piano quartet, The King of the Sun, and Wulfstan at the Millennium, an abstract liturgy for ten instruments; the blues-inflected violin duo, Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen, and the surreal trio, The Horse with the Lavender Eye; to the Biblical satire, Sons of Noah, for soprano, four flutes, four guitars, and four bassoons, and his recent cycle of motets for chorus, oboe, and strings, Precepts. He has composed concertos for renowned clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and violinist Michele Makarski, and his collaboration with the internationally celebrated Hilliard Ensemble has resulted in three substantial works, including his Symphony No. 3, commissioned by Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic. Most recently his acclaimed full-length opera, The Greater Good, was premiered and recorded by Glimmerglass Opera. Other major commissions have come from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Harvard Musical Association, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.

In 2008 Hartke’s opera, The Greater Good, received the first Charles Ives Opera Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Most of Hartke’s music is available on commercial CDs released by Bridge, Chandos, CRI, ECM New Series, EMI Classics, Naxos American Classics, and New World Records.

Stephen Hartke lives in Glendale, California, with his wife, Lisa Stidham, and son, Sandy, and is Distinguished Professor of Composition at the Thornton School of Music of the University of Southern California.

The Horse with the Lavender Eye (1997) was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The composer has written the following note:

“I’ve always been fascinated by non-sequiturs, and the way that sense can suddenly appear out of nonsense. I also find imagery derived from words and pictures to be a great stimulus to my musical thinking, even if the relationships between the images I seize upon are not necessarily obvious or logical. The sources for the titles of this trio are quite disparate, ranging from Carlo Goldoni to Japanese court music to the cartoonist R. Crumb, as well as 19th-century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis and Looney Tunes. A bewildering array of references, to be sure, but one that somehow whets my musical appetite.

“Here are examples of just how: the ancient Japanese court, borrowing from the Chinese, was divided into left and right sides with ministries and music specific to each. The image of this official Music of the Left, suggested, first, the rather ceremonial character of my trio’s first movement, and also its technical quirk: all three instruments are to be played by the left hand alone.

“In the second movement, the title of Carlo Goldoni’s play, The Servant of Two Masters, seemed to me an apt description of the performance dynamic involved in this particular combination of instruments, where the piano, in somewhat of a frenzy, serves alternately as the accompaniment to the clarinet while the violin clamors for attention, and vice versa.

“The third movement was suggested by a very short chapter in Machado de Assis’ novel Dom Casmurro wherein the narrator, observing that his story seems to be waltzing at the abyss of final catastrophe, seeks to reassure his reader (falsely, as it turns out) by saying: ‘Don’t worry, dear, I’ll wheel about.’

“For the finale, I had in mind a panel from one of R. Crumb’s underground comics of the late ’60s showing a character dashing about in an apocalyptic frenzy, shouting, among other things, ‘Cancel my rumba lesson!’

“The connective thread of all these images began to dawn on me only in the midst of composing the work: all the movements have to do in one way or another with a sense of being off-balance – playing music with only one side of the body; being caught between insistent and conflicting demands; dancing dangerously close to a precipice, and only narrowly avoiding tumbling in; and, finally, not really being able to dance the rumba at all. Nonetheless, in the very end (the rumba lesson having been canceled, I suppose), a sense of calm and equilibrium comes to prevail.”